Why are they important?
Cats frequently develop hairballs, or "furballs", which occur mainly because when they groom themselves, they accidentally swallow some of the hair. In most cases, hairballs are retched up again (which is a bit disgusting, but not dangerous). However, in some cases a large hairball may cause an intestinal obstruction or constipation. Occasionally, they are so severe that the cat requires surgery to remove them.
What causes them?
Most cats probably develop hairballs from time to time; however, cats with long coats are at the highest risk, because the longer hairs are more likely to matt together in their intestines. Some cats also have more problems with processing hairballs because of other underlying diseases, such as Feline Dysautonomia (Key-Gaskall Syndrome), or Megacolon.
Do they need dealing with?
Yes - they can cause a number of health problems, including vomiting and constipation. There are a number of ways to manage hairballs in cats who have a problem, so we'll look at the different approaches here.
Most hairballs form when cats grooms themselves, particularly when they're removing dead hair. By giving them a helping hand, you reduce the amount of hair for them to swallow. A dematting tool such as a "furminator" is invaluable in gently grooming and removing excess dead hair.
Although not suitable for most cats, most of the time, in cats with a particular predilection to hairballs, periodic use of cat-specific hairball laxatives is really useful. These are mostly oil-based pastes that act to lubricate the hairs that are swallowed; reducing the degree to which they clump up, and encouraging them to move on down the intestinal tract. Don't, however, use laxatives regularly without talking to one of our vets first, as excessive inappropriate use can upset the intestines' normal function.
There are a number of commercial diets now that are specifically designed to help the cat cope with hairballs. They may contain a higher oil content, to help lubricate the hairs; and/or a high fibre content to help move the hairs down the intestine without getting balled up.
What if none of that works?
If a stubborn hairball does occur, and doesn't respond to simple laxatives, there are a couple of veterinary approaches we can employ:
The most common severe problem caused by hairballs is constipation, as a mass of hair builds up in the colon. Although these can often be shifted with cat laxatives, sometimes they are so stubborn that you'll need to bring them in for our vets to help. In most cases, a simple micro-enema is the sufficient to get things moving again, but in some cases we may need to admit the cat, give them an anaesthetic and then a thorough soapy water enema to wash all the debris and hair out of their large intestine.
(2) Prokinetic Medicines
There are some prescription drugs that encourage the intestine to push food (and therefore hair!) on more efficiently; judicious use of these can also help in constipation.
If the hairball is lodged in the small intestine, it can cause an intestinal obstruction. In these cases, it is sometimes necessary to open them up and surgically remove it.
Hairballs are usually no more than a minor annoyance. However, for some cats they can be a major problem - fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to help! If your cat is struggling with hairballs, make an appointment to see your vet to discuss which option would work best for them.